Success is created by allowing room to fail

On ….., we were honored to welcome a select group of guests for a stimulating conversation with Gillian Tans, Chairwoman


The digital experience is a customer experience

On the contrary to how she is perceived within traditional businesses, Gillian does not see herself as coming from the future, especially considering that has already been around for twenty years. The interesting thing, with technology changing so fast, is that you need to keep reinventing yourself to remain a company of the future. That is very realistic. For Gillian, her time in the US in customer experience has been of great importance to create a focus on this customer experience which is still of high value in Because a digital experience is still a customer experience.

The importance of a bottom-up culture

As the main reason for the success of, Gillian emphasizes the culture because it is the people and the culture that build a company and its success. By having a culture that is data driven and extremely focused on the customer instead of starting with the marketing which is often the main approach. At it starts with a basic product which is  improved based on customers feedback and usage. This creates a bottom-up culture with small teams that can make their own decisions based on the data. These small teams actually influence the success. Gillian looks back with joy on the term Hippo that teams often used, which refers to the Highest Paid Persons Opinion. Idea’s that came from a Hippo would be tested before it could be implemented.

Balancing time and focus

Gillian says, as leader first understand your own role and contribution. Then set clear goals, coach people and to make sure there is a clear understanding of the individual development needs. It is also important to think about talent and how much time you spend on talent as a leader, Gillian herself spends 25 – 30% of her time on talent.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Be a scalable business. Keep it simple and focus but think big. As Gillian says; “At Booking we always had huge dreams and people might say “wow”. It might appear farfetched. The importance of dreaming big is to set your goal so audacious, that it inspires to think bigger”. This is just as important as the innovation and the quality of the product.

Focus on innovation

To bring new innovation you need a strong flywheel in which everyone knows their role and can follow data. That is a machine. But there is also the fear of being disrupted. How do you move into a new segment in a culture where people are used to have the data? When started Mobile they moved into a complete new discipline. Putting in the energy to build the same knowledge and experiment in this new field. That is why Booking continues to invest in new products, to remain successful in the future and focus on innovation.

Responsibility of the biggest

When it comes to dealing with the responsibility of being the biggest in the industry Gillian refers to like the elephant behind the tree in its earlier days. As Booking grew and become so big with it came a responsibility to lead because as Market leader, we are influencing everything. When a company grows to the size like Booking it also brings a public eye. For example, the controverse in the news when Covid started. Gillian explains the decisions made, the amount of people employed and the importance for the Dutch economy to overcome such a crisis. Looking back, Gillian would not have acted differently. It was important to look at what was necessary to survive. And again, the culture of Booking came through and its innovative strength. So, Booking looked forward on how to adapt to a new successful model in which we as always follow the customer. How do they travel now and then use that data in this new situation?

Being allowed to fail

Gijs de Vries asks about failures, “the dark side of leadership”. Gillian identifies the launch of an interface to integrate hotel chains that crashed the website as a key failure.  An important lesson but also laid the foundation for future success. The leadership team at the time gave her the room to fail and the time to successfully correct that failure. Even the interface today is still based on that mistake, because we learned what not to do.

Data driven diversity

Diversity within Booking is important, but why is diversity in companies moving slowly?  Gillian determines there needs to be a data driven discussion on what diversity means for the business and culture. If you build diverse cultures, people feel that they really belong and can do their best work by being able to be themselves. That is how businesses and the world become more inclusive.

The legacy of a role model

Being a role model, taking risks and not being afraid to fail, and being an inspiration to other women. Role models are super crucial for other women to succeed. For Gillian that was being able to be part of the journey of Booking in building the business from no. 7 to Chairwoman.

What can leaders contribute to diversity? Take ownership. Talk about it as much as you can. Diversity needs ownership from the top, but the improvements need to come bottom up.